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The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Western literature Lee, Mark Owen


This dissertation traces the course of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in classical and later Western literature. Three particulars about myth serve to unify the discussion: myth evolves in literature; its meaning changes through the ages; some myths evolve art-forms in which to express themselves. Myth evolves in literature: Chapter I examines the twenty-one references to or treatments of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek and Roman authors, and attempts to show that the traditional story of Orpheus' backward glance and the second loss of Eurydice is a Hellenistic development of a story originally connected with Orphic mysteries. The fully developed myth is seen to combine elements of myth, legend and folklore. The meaning of myth changes through the ages: in the classical period (Chapter II), the separate themes in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, themes of death, music and love (stemming from the mythical, legendary and folk elements, respectively), are stated in the Culex; but Orpheus for this age is primarily a great civilizing influence, and this is the context in which Virgil places him in the Georgics. In the Middle Ages (Chapter III), the myth is allegorized in Boethius and romanticized in the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo. In the Renaissance (Chapter IV), Orpheus is once more a symbol of the civilizing force, and the descent to Hades, though often alluded to, is less important than other myths in the Orpheus-cycle. The Orpheus bequeathed to literature by the opera (Chapter V) is more human and fallible, and in the Romantic age (Chapter VI) this figure is gradually fused with the mystical Orphic poet, so that the contemporary Orpheus of Rilke and Cocteau (Chapter VII) is again a symbol, but of man in his role of artist, seeking to communicate with another world. Myth sometimes evolves art-forms in which to express itself; Politian's Orfeo, a secular subject which used music to tell its story, is seen to be the forerunner of the opera (Chapter IV); later, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice evolved the opera, in the works of the Florentine Camerata and Monteverdi, and served as the pattern for its reform, in Gluck (Chapter V). While the myth has meant something different to every age, there is a uniformity in its tradition: poets have always availed themselves of one or more of its three themes - the victory of death over life, the civilizing power of music, the problem of human emotion and its control.

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